Show me my Silver Lining

Lemonade from lemons. In theory, motivating. In theory, inspiring. In theory, possible. When life serves you lemons, make lemonade. Make something good out of the bad. Right? In theory. Call me a sour puss, but sometimes the lemons just sit there. All cheerful and happy in their sunny yellow-ness all the while mocking you. Pucker up sucker. Do you know what I mean? Turning around the hand you’ve been dealt takes moxy. It takes effort. Bluffing works. Sometimes. Sometimes it is easier said than done, making that god damn hypothetical lemonade.

Continue reading “Show me my Silver Lining”

The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game. Wow. Apparently I’m good at it. Or maybe it’s the opposite, maybe if I was good at it, I wouldn’t be so affected by it. I feel like I am always waiting here. In Denmark. In America, waiting is not a worthy pursuit. Patience is a virtue, perhaps. But time is money, peeps. We don’t have time to waste. We are efficient masters of time. What are you waiting for? It won’t just land in your lap, you have to go out there and get it. Whatever your it is. In America. We work long hours to achieve our “it.” Shuttle our kids to and fro their scheduled active lives. Free time? I might have some. Next Tuesday. Let me check. Worth is measured in how our time is filled. What you do with your time. Downtime must be used efficiently as well. Long weekends are good enough. Fill it up. Get out there and get to it. The doing in the time you have allotted for whatever it was you set out to do. Did we get it all done? Who knows. Did my Facebook album and Instagram feed make it look like I did? Super. (They say that a lot here in Denmark.) Success. Right? Maybe.

Back in Copenhagen. In Denmark. Things are slower. It’s acceptable. It’s expected. Nothing wrong with it. Meals are slower (which I like.) Commuting is slower (on bikes and busses.) So here I wait. I wait for the bus. I wait for the train. Not long luckily, most of the time. I used to have to wait for the electric car to charge before we could make the final legs of our long weekend journey home. While the Leaf’s efficiency in lowering carbon emissions is bar none, the electronic charging station infrastructure outside current Danish metroplexes lends tedium to the logistics of using it. We ditched it. Too much waiting. Currently I wait for my ankle to heal. I dislocated it. Badly. And unfortunately the timing for its healing is vague and amorphous. If you can recall, I was released from the hospital with allowances to attend my pre-planned family reunion round the globe in Hawaii. I did. Make it. It wasn’t exactly fun traveling for nearly 36 hours with brand new screws in my ankle and heparin shots to self-inject. But. The arriving and the being and the experiencing and the reuning with family on the Big Island for a long week was worth it. The warm sun on our faces. The iced Kona coffees shared at the sand-floored waterfront shop. The perma-smiles on my childrens’ faces. Was worth it. Even if I couldn’t get in that blue blue water teeming with colorful sleek fish. So worth it. The return trip home equally as tedious. But again. Worth it. That was Thursday last.

Painting Ceramic Easter eggs at Copenhagen Creative-Space
Painting Ceramic Easter eggs at Copenhagen Creative-Space

God Påske from Denmark! We returned home to a quiet Easter weekend in Copenhagen. Even with 90% of the city shut down – it was beautiful. A long weekend dressed in spring’s finest. Daffodils emerging sunny and yellow. The bluest skies painted with the fluffiest whitest clouds you’ve ever seen. Seriously. You want to learn how to paint clouds? Come to Denmark. Where Copenhagen sits is an island. Clouds blow over the flat landscape in ever mutating puffy shapes. One advantage of our 5th floor flat is that I can bear witness to their passing from my window as I elevate my broken foot. This pro only slightly tops the scales balancing the con of crutching up those flights on one leg. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger may apply here, but allow me some license to gripe. It isn’t easy. And my husband waits. For me. Afraid I might careen back down and break another something I think. Not in my grand plan. But neither was the tossed ankle to be honest.

I’m awaiting a call from the Doctor. Waiting to see when the follow-up surgery required to correct the original corrective surgery will take place. Waiting to see when the light at the end of my tunnel will appear. Right now – it’s pretty dark in there. And there is a traffic jam apparently. Back-up of surgeries more acute than mine at the hospital. Plugging along. But can’t deny that emotionally, it is a wee bit challenging, knowing that you’re rerouting. A big U-turn if you will, back to the beginning of your post-op recovery time. Any progress – less swelling, less pain, more mobility – all null and void. I know. I know. It could be worse. It’s just an ankle. It will heal. But more than my ankle, any progress that I was feeling in expatriation here has slowed to a snail’s pace. Hard to network and explore and share with children when your current reality is moving at a careful, metered crutch-across-cobblestones pace. Eight weeks post-operative progress starts…. NOW. Oh – not now? When, exactly? You don’t know. Oh. Do you know when you’ll know when? No? Ok. Let me know. When. I’m here. Waiting.

I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for waiting with me.

Cheers from Denmark!

Catch me if you can as I cobble and crutch
Catch me if you can as I cobble and crutch

Nellie Bly and Roly-Chairs

I could fashion myself a modern day Nellie Bly – sacrificing myself to investigate the Danish Healthcare system – from the inside. Dun, dun, dun. Dislocating your ankle, tearing both ligaments required to locate it and fracturing your fibula – on purpose – might be reason enough to get me committed to Nellie’s “human rat-trap” of an insane asylum back in 1887 NYC. But this is no Blackwell’s Island. And on purpose, this accident was not. Boo. And OUCH. Serious ouch. Suddenly the charm and beautiful view and streaming light pouring through our 5th floor apartment seem a wee bit less inspiring and a helluva lot more daunting to access. Our recent “car-free” life choice presenting itself as an inconvenient truth, but we’re committed. For now.

Here in Copenhagen, there is no 911 and we had to retrain the children. Here, you dial 112 for life-threatening emergencies, but 1813 for all other potential emergency room visits. Requisite over-the-phone triaging complete, I am directed to immediately make my way to the nearest hospital. Sans car. Barely a little older than a year, the 1813 line was executed in January 2014 as an effort to eliminate long waiting room spans sitting in discomfort. I have no basis for comparison pre-1813, as this is our first foray into the Danish healthcare system. Months back, we received our precious Danish CPR card and number (similar to an American Social Security Number, but utilized for all aspects of life here in Denmark. That # becomes your library card #, your health record #, your bank account access #, your access to your new mobile telephone #, and right now my medical ID bracelet #. Some feel it might be big brother’s #.) With that number, came pre-assigned doctors based on our address, which we had not yet the need to make a visit.

Within our limited and current frame of reference, this new 1813 system seems to work. Once we got there that is. Hopping down all those stairs, even with assistance, was not an option – much, much too much jarring and corresponding PAIN. We improvised a sling of sorts out of my husband’s wool scarf to hold the quickly swelling leg in a tolerable position while I carefully and slowly scooted down on my bum, one stair at a time. Making it to the bottom landing (on my bottom) I now had to make it the 15’ from the stairs through the building’s front door to the taxi waiting out front. Being carried on the shoulders of my husband and eldest son (he is taller than me remember?) didn’t work as it created more swinging of the hurt appendage than I could bear. Some quick-thinking and my son hustled back up to our apartment and grabbed the roller desk chair that had recently come into our possession. Our new (read old, from someone else’s trash) chair that was prophetic to have procured, came at the persuasive insistence of my wee lass who NEEDED a desk chair for her non-existent, but dreaming-of-desk-to-be. [Side note: Did I already clarify that our new home was not furnished upon takeover and no furniture was placed in the crate of our American goods relocating with us. Good thing too – as the crate is STILL NOT HERE. That’s another story.] A healthy dose of anti-bacterial cleaner and the “roly-chair” was a life-saver a few nights back. Slightly challenging for the small, used, plastic wheels over the cobblestone sidewalk, but into the taxi I was delivered with care.

What do “roly-chairs” have to do with the Danish healthcare system? Well besides being my initial transport – just wait. Upon arrival and astute interception by our Danish taxi driver’s part – Nej, I don’t think you are supposed to check in at the Rigshospitalet – you are probably supposed to go to the Bispebjerg Hospital. Oh. Is that what she said on the phone? I thought I had clarified (in my haze of pain) that she was checking me into the closest hospital for our address. Yes. She was. Just not the one that I thought. Rigshospitalet – quite close to us and near the big park where we play – accepts only traumas as evidenced by the active heli-pad on top that we hear more than you’d guess while playing nearby. So second shout out of thanks to the cabbie who got us to the correct destination despite our terrible Danish and slight anxiety. (First tak [thanks] goes to my son for the “roly-chair” creativity and application.)

Hej! Hello, we answer upon arrival at Bispebjerg. Did you call 1813? Yes? Ok. CPR #. (Did I tell you that there is no direct word for PLEASE in Danish? Lots of ways to say thank you, but no please. Mull on that.) Intake continuing – can I see your leg? Oh. Ok. What did you do? (A question that will be repeated again. And again. And again. Why is my answer never an exciting thing either… thinking back to my plethora of ER room visits, they remain none of them from doing anything very exciting.) Laundry. I was doing the laundry after dinner. As a public service announcement to any and all reading this, I would urgently recommend that you secure your darling new area rugs to your high polished, beautiful parquet hardwood floors lest they cause you to slip and try to correct and otherwise shred your ankle in a pathetic attempt to catch yourself. You have been warned. Yep. That’s it. I slipped. And fell. HARD. I could get up, but barely.

Eyebrows raised. That’s it? She doesn’t SAY that, but she says that. With her eyebrows. Why wasn’t your rug secured? (She didn’t really say that either.) Danish incredulity. I’ve seen this look before. I’m getting used to it. I don’t take it personally anymore. They don’t mean it personally. So clearly, my situation looks far worse than better and I am “fast-tracked” to ortho triage. Story relayed again. Eyebrows raised again. But Danish efficacy kicks in and I am administered pain-killers, x-rays, grim assessments, an IV, an ankle relocation complete with thigh-high temporary cast and some seriously sexy stretchy white cotton skivvy shorts.

Thigh high temp cast
Thigh high temp cast

Say that 7 times fast. Seven times as long (by the end more like 77 times as long) is what I waited to have the surgery they assured me I required to reattach those pesky loose ligaments. Here is the first glaring contrast to the American health system. I was admitted to the hospital at 23:00 on a Saturday night. I was discharged the following Thursday at 13:00. I have never been in the hospital that long – even after a cesarean section. With several push-backs on my “soft” surgery time, which they had been very clear from the beginning, that because I was not an emergency case anymore, stabilized in my glamourous temp cast, I could wait. Jesting with me after last notification of push-back, my nurse says that’s why they call you a patient right? Requires patience. More than one nurse said this to me. But how do you say patient in Danish I asked? Patient, he answers. Ok – so it’s the same, but how do you say “patience” in Danish. Tålmodighed. So! It’s not a Danish thing – the “patient-patience” correlation. Oh but it is. He assured me.

Danes are a socialized country, as you know. Every aspect of society is theoretically based on the idea of “the whole.” How does something benefit, impact and/or profit the whole. No one person is better or more deserving than any other in this theory. This doesn’t always translate in the day-to-day here. Despite the somewhat flattened socio-economic strata when compared to the United States – there are still marked and obvious differences in opportunities and lifestyles. But I have seen it in action in several arenas – how the “whole” supplants the singular. It was definitely an undercurrent pushing my little broken raft into a Danish healthcare eddy. You will be operated on when it is best for the whole. Yep. Patience. Got it. Roly-chair to the restroom? Please? Oh you don’t say please. Tak?

So two days I waited to be taken to surgery. Not only waited, but was not allowed to eat or drink as pre-op procedure. Which would be fine – if you knew that pre-op was moving to op and then on to post-op. But no. Two days in a row, I fasted and thirsted. On my bedside table a little sign Faste og Tørste made sure no one accidently fed me or watered me. Directly translated it means “fixed and thirsty.” Two days I was fixed and thirsty, only to be told at around 20:00 that the last case had been taken to surgery and I would not be operated on that day. In Denmark, there is a work-life balance that dominates their culture, something many other countries express envy over. It is often mentioned as one of the reasons why Danes are the “happiest people on the planet” (I’m still assessing that one). How this work-life balance translates in my scenario is that there is no surgery done between 10pm and 8am, unless of course it is truly an emergency, then some doctor’s work-life balance gets put off that day. Lucky me though, I get dinner now. Three hours after dinner was already served, mind you. Ummm.

Traditional Danish Smørrebrød
Traditional Danish Smørrebrød

Traditional Danish smørrebrød (open faced sandwiches) can vary dramatically in texture, taste and tolerability for one not accustomed to such delicacies. Lox on rye bread (rugbrød) quite good and much better than mayo’d ham salad or canned cod roe loaf (you heard me) or leverpostej (liver paste) is all I’m saying. But eat I tried and patience I mustered, all the while my American incredulity growing that I was still hanging out at the hospital on the state’s dime awaiting surgery. This would never happen, your insurance wouldn’t pay for it in U.S. Good or bad. Riding a roller coaster of emotion, daily. Back and forth, back and forth. To the toilet too. Roly chair from the bed to the toilet. And don’t call it the restroom – why do you Americans call it the “restroom”? Are you really resting in there? What’s in there? A toilet is in there. You go to the toilet. (Actual interaction with snarky, but hearty laugh inducing, needed smile-producing male nurse.) But luckily Danes do call it a toilet because the night nurses who didn’t speak Engelsk and I could both understand that word.

This patient did ok. Pain management was working and nurses were very attentive. The language barrier only impacted me hypothetically (thanks to our cabbie) and I wouldn’t have been able to read anything the non-Engelsk speaking Kiosk gent was proffering or enjoy any of his treats due to strict IV fasting diet awaiting surgery. The language barrier was maybe even beneficial for the elder Danish gentleman that I shared a semi-private room with for the first two evenings. He was there first. He got the window. He could chat freely with his wife and family knowing that I had no idea what he was saying. It wasn’t immediately apparent if he knew English, as he respected my space (very Danish) and only said a quick Hej or Farvel when scooting past on his walker to do his rehab in the hall. As it turned out – he did know English – which he revealed only when the physical therapist, who came to work with him, spoke to me in Danish. You have to speak English to this one, my roomie clarified. AH! You DO know English! Ok. But before we were able to chat any further, I was rolled down the hall to a new room and new roommates. Apparently men and women co-sleeping (with privacy curtains of course) was a relatively new adaptation in Danish healthcare – only allowed in the past few years. I will admit my surprise at first, but it was fine. Respectful and fine. (And he snored less than my husband. Sorry babe!)

Waking up on my third day in Bispebjerg Hospital with my new roommate Irma, it was now St. Patrick’s Day. March 17th is not a holiday celebrated in Denmark – minor events locally, but really more of a pub-marketed drinking fest. And while Danes do love another reason to drink, there was no wearing of the green at the hospital, no corned beef and cabbage on the menu. I am very aware that the St. Paddy’s Day I have grown up with is a truly American creation, but being an American McMillen by birth, a holiday that my family has cherished wholeheartedly. A lucky visit from the doctor – the first one to actually speak with me since the initial assessment that my leg’s new contrapposto alignment might need rectifying. I’m on the schedule! It’s my lucky day! Kiss me – I’m Irish! But – don’t get your hopes up, you could be moved again, barring any 80-year-old hip breaks that would supersede me, something more about patience, we’ll keep you posted, yada yada… I’m on the schedule! At 15:00 today on the schedule. So I can drink for a few more hours. Did I say that the nurses were attentive? When Pernille found out that it was my family’s holiday, she brought my pre-op protein liquid in a celebratory wine glass. Cheers. For good cause it would turn out.

Happy St. Pre-Op!
Happy St. Pre-Op!

Rolled into surgery and back with a sleek new black boot, dinner and another night’s rest are in order. Seems Irish eyes are smiling. The following day, now Wednesday after my Saturday night admittance, thinking I have confirmed a discharge, I ring my family for a borrowed-car-ride home. Alas, says the next doctor, the last x-ray shows that the bones, which have been screwed to my ligaments, may not be in correct alignment and only a CT Scan can prove one way or another. Another means I can exit the hospital (the next day) and one way means corrective surgery to correct the original corrective surgery. Back on the roller coaster. Bring me the roly-chair to the toilet – I think I may puke. What I may have failed to mention, which has been backstage coloring my personal emotional slate this entire time, is the fact that previously scheduled to occur exactly one week after my initial accident, was an exodus of epic proportions – a cross-continental journey to reunite with my extended family in Hawaii for Spring Break. Believe me, I shared this with every single care-giver that I encountered while in Bispebjerg. And I am aware of how very first-world a problem this can sound. You have insurance right? The airlines will give you money back because of your surgery? You can change it? No. I can’t change it. Walking the fine line between making myself the “ugly American” pushing my needs ahead of the “whole” – I simply wanted it to be known that more than a tropical vacation of steady vitamin D infusion and flower leis – I needed to fill the emotional prescription of seeing a family that I missed spending Thanksgiving with, that we did not share Christmas with. That New Year’s was rung in thousands of miles and 9 hours apart. That birthdays (firsts and twelfths and thirty-sevenths and forty-fourths) have occurred, red velvet cakes and German Chocolate ones lovingly prepared; corned beef shared; all separately and in galaxies far far apart. All tolerable, because we knew in four or so months, we would all be together again in Hawaii. In reality, it may be the only time that we see part of the family for an entire year – possibly more. The possibility that a not-so Freudian slip could null and void the months and months of anticipation, expectation were turning into desperation. I could not get it out of my head how MY accident would impact my children if we were unable to take the trip and reconnect with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. Hot roly-chair of emotions all OVER the place.

Ok. Thursday. Yesterday. Long story long. I know. Bear with me. But I was in there for nearly a WEEK. My CAT scan is back. It is not good. I need surgery again. And it will be next week. Cue tears on my part, not difficult at this point, desperation seeming quite desperate. Luckily my escalating emotion was quickly tempered by my husband, who merely asked – might it be possible to make that the week AFTER next? Already becoming well versed in how to maneuver in the Danish team-oriented business setting, this new option was not necessarily all about how it benefitted ME. (Or us.) But how it could work within the whole. Doctor did some checking and conceded that it would be possible. Heavy sigh. Roll me up on outta here doc! Erin Go Bragh! Erin is going to Hawaii! I may be back in the hospital for Easter and on, but right now I will take it.

Sleek black boot to go-go, crutches and the infamous "rolly-chair"
Sleek black boot to go-go, crutches and the infamous “roly-chair”

As for your take-away – my hard-hitting assessment of the Danish healthcare system and my part in its whole – I’m still culminating my answer. I will have more time to experience it in a few weeks. Yay me. As for the wonderful Danish people who cared for me as part of their whole – mange tak! Seriously. A special shout-out to Gitte and Dr. Gustafsson (who weirdly had the same birthday as me, as well as namesake) for carefully and quickly assessing me. Charlotte for the lovely temp cast and initial adjustment – not as bad as I thought it was going to be. Pernille and Louise and Måysa and Nina and of course Bent (but not broken) – and the rest of the nurses who helped turn my anxiety into calm, my pain into comfort and my sadness into laughter. Karsten and Frederick in anesthesia who sensing my stress eased me into the process and out again with grace and true care. And for my new neighbors Helene and Becky who lent cars, brought food and magazines, took children – TAK! Thank you for being my new village. And for now, whether the Danish healthcare system is BETTER or worse than the U.S. or any other for that matter – I cannot definitively say. Maybe Nellie Bly I am not. But I can tell you that despite the warning that the Danes don’t cultivate a service culture, my care and service this past week was beyond compare and I can only attribute that to the Danish healthcare system and the Danes themselves. Tusind tak! Now roll me some sunscreen.

I was hoping to return to see the full royal crocus carpet at the Rosenborg Slot. Next year!
I was hoping to return to see the full royal crocus carpet at the Rosenborg Slot. Next year!

Size Matters

Moving somewhere new and not knowing your way around; where to buy groceries, the nearest playground, where the hospital is, which doctor to see, (not speaking the language) can definitely make a place feel disproportionately enormous. Take away the instant gratification enjoyed by getting somewhere in your own car, that used to sit right out your own front door in your own driveway and instead plan ahead for various modes of public transportation making certain destinations seem interminably far away. All enhancing how BIG it feels in your new.

Quick follow-up to my last post about going “car-free” – two school birthday party invitations later and we have already had to get creative. You were invited to a classmate’s birthday party? Sure you can go – that sounds super fun! RSVP’d and onto the calendar it goes. Oh, it’s where? An hour away by train? EEK. Ok. Quick thinking here – using resources at our disposal – where’s that class list? Can you get a ride with a classmate whose family HAS A CAR? You can? Phew. Birthday drama averted. Community extended at the same time that wagons draw in, expanding and contracting simultaneously. Does that make sense? Do you know what I mean? Let me explain. The more connections that we make, the more personally knit our web here – being able to call up a classmate’s parents and ask for back-up for instance – the smaller or closer or more intimate the environment becomes. Size matters.

Sound backward? Meeting more people should make your world bigger. Right? On one side of the coin, it does. Tillykke! (That’s Danish for congratulations. Tillykke med fødselsdagen! Birthday congratulations.) Being invited to a new Danish friend’s birthday party affords my son insight into how the locals live and celebrate. But it also makes his big and somewhat overwhelming new horizon feel more secure and his place in it more stable and therefore smaller. Not knowing anyone in a new place can create a vacuous sensation and tenuous connection with a new environment. Floating all alone in space. Houston, we have a problem. Something like Sandra Bullock in Gravity comes to mind – you know, without the gripping fear of death alone in frozen SPACE and all. Extending the network is good. Radio silence, not so good. Bringing it down to your earth where you are, building your back-up, definitely beneficial. Size matters.

Maneuvering new routines

For the first few months after arriving in Denmark, when we were still figuring out basic daily functions – like how to get to school, how to function at school, the new routines – everything took a little longer than normal. How to feed ourselves for instance – what to eat, where to get it, what that food being sold was exactly, what it tasted like, it all took twice as long – and sometimes more. Luckily, the daily grocery store trips have now become somewhat less of a time suck for me. I have found some basics that I know everyone will eat; which bread we all like, the non-mushy apples, which lunch meats don’t taste “weird,” the best yogurt. I don’t have to translate every single item at my small neighborhood SuperBrugsen or Irma or Netto or Føtex (just to name a few) anymore and I know (mostly) where to find the things I need.

Friends, meet Irma. Irma - meet my friends.
Friends, meet Irma. Irma – meet my friends.

Bulk buying at the likes of an enormous American warehouse store (Costco) doesn’t exist in the city here. There are literally laws in place that restrict the physical size of retail outlets – grocery and otherwise. But bulk shopping doesn’t correlate to our lifestyle here either – it wouldn’t fit in my small European refrigerator or in my cabinets for that matter.  Nor in the many other temporary apartments that we experienced before we found ours. Not that I ever really stocked up for a week ahead of time in Oregon, but remember that to do so here, I’d have to hand carry it all home and then get that all up FIVE flights of stairs – remember? It isn’t better or worse necessarily – it’s just different. I will admit that my estimation of those large, ungainly, and bulky cargo bikes that are prevalent here has risen dramatically. Without a kid or two (or grandmother or girlfriend… or drunk boyfriend for that matter) taking up the space upfront – you could tote a bunch of groceries with ease. Size matters.

So during that expansion phase a few months back, I posed a question to my family. Does Copenhagen feel “big” to you? Or in relative terms, does it seem “bigger” or “smaller” than Portland, Oregon (being our most recent from)? I would say that in our collective initial estimation, we all felt Copenhagen was bigger. Maybe it was the preconceived notion that it SHOULD be bigger. It’s the capital of Denmark. The capital of the U.S. – Washington D.C. – is much bigger than Portland, so it seemed fitting to assume that the capital of a European country should be larger as well.

But for reference, when digging deeper and looking at the actual numbers, the population of the D.C. metropolitan area is larger than the entire population of Denmark – the COUNTRY. Have you looked on a map yet? Denmark itself is SMALL – weighing in at 16,562 square miles (42,916 square km – we work in metric over here) housing a total population of 5.5 million peeps. Oregon – not even the largest state in the union by any stretch of the imagination – dwarfs Denmark by comparison. Ladies and gentlemen – in this corner – in the green and mountainous shorts, weighing in at 98,381 square miles (225,026 square km) – Oregon is almost 6 times larger. I honestly don’t know what Oregon weighs – but you get the gist.

They: Where are you from? Oregon? Where is that?

Me: Do you know where California is?

They: Oh yes!

Me: Oregon is above California. Go north.

They: Aaah. Oh. (Look of puzzlement.) Really.

Me: Yep.

Comparing and contrasting

It’s all relative and size matters. Now come on, you may be thinking. How does the relative size of the country of Denmark in comparison with one state mean anything in the grand scheme of things? For one families’ perception of a place (Denmark and more specifically Copenhagen), it has great value and impact, I’m here to tell you. The children, and my husband, and I for that matter, all thought that Copenhagen was “bigger” than Portland, Oregon. As it turns out, it’s not. That does a bit for your psyche. In a good way for us. Portland has a population of 610,000 people, its metro grows to 2.2 million (including, but not limited to our ‘hood Lake Oswego to the south, Hillsboro to the west, Gresham to the east and neighboring Vancouver, WA suburbs to the north.) In contrast (but really just very very close) Copenhagen proper lays claim to 570,000 within its bounds and a cumulative metropolitan population of 1.9 million. That is almost 35% of Denmark’s total population who lives in and around Copenhagen. For the kids – suddenly, the city was achievable. That’s not SO big. Rather, we can handle that. It’s a comfortable size, a manageable size, a familiar and relative size. Size matters.

Part of what makes a place a home, and feel like a community, are the networks and people that you know within it. My friend from Oregon recently expatriated with her family to Mexico around the same time that we moved here. We recently chatted over Skype and while many of our experiences are shared due to the age of our children and our common background, the cultural differences make each situation distinctly unique. She offered me some great advice – nuggets of wisdom that her recently departed lovely mother shared with her many years ago as she sent her daughter, my friend, off to Paris France to work and study at 19 years old.

Something akin to Carpe Diem, but a bit more personal – about the importance of seizing opportunities to connect with the people that present themselves to you. Putting aside preconceived notions about who and what and where – letting people in that you may not have otherwise, because of this new now, this new place. Not turning down an offer to experience something because you’ve done it before, but looking at it as the potential for connection. On the other end of the spectrum, not turning it down because you didn’t see yourself doing that before now. I am trying. I joined an adult choir. Not on my bucket list at home, but I will admit that I am truly enjoying it and it is indubitably affording me new connections. One of which I ran into at my neighborhood grocery store this week. I knew someone at the grocery store! It is hard to understand how comforting this is. How much smaller (and grander) my universe now feels. Size matters. Cheers from Denmark!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m linking up with #MyExpatFamily – come meet more expats exploring life in their corner of the world! Follow @MyExpatLife on twitter for weekly #Twitterchats about #ExpatLife.

Seychelles Mama


It’s Lent. The Lenten season. How you believe and what you believe and how you exercise those beliefs is between you and yours – not for me to question – unless it impacts my family. Please refrain from using weapons to share your faith, speaking from experience it converts few. But as far as modern celebrations, public holidays and personal traditions evolve, I have always been interested in the why and the how from their basis they form. All the more so now in my newly expatriated version of self, how those resonate within different cultures is especially remarkable – and now I’ll remark on it. (You knew that right?) As it turns out, very little investigation required, determined that the origins of the English word Lent emerge from the German, Dutch and Old English words for spring or the coming of spring, a lengthening of days. (I can seriously feel them changing daily here in Denmark. Lengthening. Hver dage a little bit more sun in the morning and a little bit more sun in the afternoon – every day. For this I am faithful, sommer in Denmark will be amazing.) The word Lent as it translates from Latin into our modern romance languages relates more to its respected historical and modern timing – 40 days. In its most generic distillation, Lent is the 40 days before Easter and starts with Ash Wednesday and is generally marked by a personal sacrifice – giving something up. Did you give something up this year for Lent? Sugar? Wine? Watch this and get back to me how that went….but as I said before – to each his own.

To me, what is almost as interesting as the cultural significance in your Lenten practices are the events that precede the penitenten Lenten days. WOOT WOOT! It’s Mardi Gras y’all! Laissez les bons temps roullez! Oh sorry. I’m not sure where that escaped from – maybe watching too many friends celebrate in multi-faceted bedecked and bejeweled style on Bourbon Street via my Facebook. I’ve never actually been there – but it looks amazing in its own right. Carnavale pops up in many cultures – scantily clad and costumed, bedazzled and parading – let it all hang out before we have to rein it all in. Personally I’m not quite ready in Februar to let it all hang out. Ask me again midsommer and I may feel differently. Too much good Danish brød and smør this vinter for me perhaps.

In Denmark at this time of year – like all of the holidays I have experienced here so far – there is a melding of modern Christian and medieval Viking culture. You will here the words God Jul wishing you a merry Christmas in December, but Jul was celebrated long before the heathens were converted, evidence of the cultural consolidation. At this time of year – Danes celebrate Fastelavn. Occuring this year during our strange Vinterferie, we really didn’t get a good grasp of all that is Danish about Fastelavn. But as I understand it, costumed children (not unsimilar to Halloween, which has only recently in the past decade taken on in Scandinavia) sing songs and go door to door for treats or money. Local bageris make their own version of the Fastelavn bolle – a yummy Danish version of fried dough. I have a theory that all cultures have a version of their own traditional fried dough and it is especially heightened at this time of year. (ie; Pączki, pancakes, donuts, churros, King Cake, fastelavn bolle, etc. etc.)

My favorite part of Fastelavn is the somewhat strange medieval corruption of the game “beat the cat out of the barrel.” (slå katten af tønden) Yes, you heard me. Something about knocking bad spirits, embodied by the cat (preferably black) out of a wooden barrel. They literally shoved a live cat in a wooden barrel, strung it up, sang songs and whacked the crap out of the barrel until the cat escaped or didn’t. If it escaped alive it was chased out of town to preserve the village from evil doings the coming year.

Essentially similar to whacking a piñata – the wooden barrel is full of candy and children take turns hitting it with their best shot one by one with a wooden bat of sorts. The first child to break the barrel open releasing the treats (which will be equally shared of course, this is a socialist country) is crowned the Kattedronning. The “Cat Queen.” Special, for sure, but not as coveted an award as the next, as evidenced by the sheer size of the faux crowns. The highly prized and generously faux-crowned title goes to the Kattekonge aka the “Cat King.” To earn this challenging and luckily-timed award, one must be up and have the last whack per se. For it is the one who knocks off the very last board of the barrel who can only be crowned the Kattekonge.

Call it beginner’s luck, but my wee lass came home with this penultimate crown. I met her off her train/bus commute home festooned in her gold and red crown and adorned in the widest grin. I will admit at first that I found it quite charming, but had no idea what she had accomplished. Not until our Danish contacts kept commenting how special and amazing and special and cool and special it was that she achieved said Kattekonge crowning. Children apparently go their whole lives hoping and striving for said title, but alas my wee lass got it on her first go. Now – just to be clear – she waited her turn and not until her 5th whack in the line did she lay into that last board and win her major award. Those who know her can only imagine her fierce determination to knock that thing off. Even the boys were impressed. Hugs and cheers from classmates, alongside more than a few covetous glances to be sure.

All hail the Cat King!
All hail the Cat King!

So this year, maybe we missed the costumes, didn’t even really sample all the fastelavn bolles, didn’t get to earn the candy or monies (we didn’t know the songs), but my kids will have forever memories of the season, especially my Kattekonge. Will we give something up for Lent? No. We have given much up to be here. Besides a disposal (I still really miss that), a comfy couch, a car that comfortably fits us all – we have given up the regularity of seeing good friends. Given up holidays and events with families. Passed on leading committees, making sports teams, dancing on stages. We have given up to be here. We have made our sacrifices, be it Lenten in determination or not. But what have we gained. It is still being clarified. But so far, I know it will have to include; experience, culture, empathy, people, adventure, tradition. Will they all be experiences and adventures that we choose. Maybe not. But part of us, they will be. And as Lent is a time of internal perspective, I can appreciate the introspection and inward turn in anticipation for longer days and the rebirth of the explorer inside of us all. Just wait. I am.